Computers are cold, hard and uninviting. A Chumby is soft, playful and at the forefront of Web-enabled home and business-travel devices. So what exactly is a Chumby? Categorizing it has probably been one of the biggest challenges founder Steve Tomlin, 46, and his team has faced. "We call it an interactive media player," says Tomlin. "It isn't a smaller, bigger or fancier computer. It's not something you already have." The Chumby, which looks like a standalone car headrest with a built-in high-resolution touch-screen, is an always-on Internet-enabled device. It offers all sort of information. The Chumby is a clock. It's also an entertainment news feed, a calendar, a digital photo frame, a video player, a stock-quote display and nearly a thousand other things enabled from the widget applications that run on it. The $179 Chumby takes your most desired information and puts it in front of you for access at a glance, whether that's the morning surf report or pictures of your family. The Chumby, which debuted in February, has squishy sides, internal speakers and runs on an open-source Linux platform. It's not surprising that a company that avoided naming their new Internet-enabled device without a prefix "e" or "i" sees things a bit differently than other tech companies. The Chumby, unlike most other consumer electronics, gets better with age. The early adopters of Chumby, for example, didn't know they were buying an Internet radio. But one morning they looked at their device and saw a tab for music that had been pushed to their device with a software update through the Internet.
"I love that you don't throw your old products away because they're obsolete," says Tomlin. "The products you own just improve over time and they improve by the needs and requests of the community. And because it's open, even if as a company we don't agree or make it a high priority to meet a user need, the user can do it himself." Tomlin and his 42 employees are now working to push their software to other Web-connected devices with screens. Digital photo frames are a perfect example of a product that will greatly improve with the integration of Chumby software. But making a successful push into the consumer-electronics market and expanding partner relationships as a software provider can be demanding. "If you're doing things well, you're always feeling overwhelmed," says Tomlin. "You have to have a few simple things that drive your company that you have to stay ruthlessly focused on and not get dragged into the sideshow activities." The odds of staying focused for Chumby Industries Inc., which has raised nearly $20 million in funding, are pretty high. Tomlin has a history of success. In 1998 he sold his company, PersonalLogic Inc., which provided decision-guide technology to AOL, a unit of Time Warner ( TWX). He later became and still holds his position as a partner at Avalon Ventures, which seeds early-stage companies, Chumby being one of them. For a guy who has a lot of demands on his time, it's no wonder he developed a device to simplify and bring joy to his life. Did we mention the Chumby also has a widget that counts down to Christmas?